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McCain Resumes Talk of Comprehesive Immigration Reform

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) center, smiles as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) left, makes a joke at a roundtable discussion at Finelite, Inc., in Union City, Calif., May 22, 2008. At right is Meg Whitman, former president and CEO of eBay. (Associated Press)

By Juliet Eilperin
UNION CITY, Calif. -- Surrounded by high-tech entrepreneurs, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said this morning he would expand visas for immigrants at the same time he would propose legislation cracking down on illegal immigration.

The declaration -- which came as several Silicon Valley CEOs complained about the need for highly skilled employees -- marked a slight shift from what McCain had said while campaigning to secure his party's nomination. During the GOP primary McCain -- whose support for bipartisan immigration reform proved to be a liability within his own party -- said he would clamp down on illegal aliens before doing any other immigration reform.

"I believe we have to secure our borders. But we must enact comprehensive immigration reform, and we must make it a top priority," McCain told the chief executives of several high-tech companies. "We must make the best of this problem, and we must attract the best and brightest minds to this nation."

Shellye Archambeau, CEO of the software company MetricStream, told McCain she was worried about the decline in H1B visas, which go to highly skilled workers, as well as the fact that foreign students earning graduate degrees here are leaving the United States in increasing numbers.

"We should give them a diploma and staple a visa right at the same time, so they can stay," she said, prompting applause from the audience "The key point here is immigration has fueled the growth and innovation of this country since its founding."

McCain expressed sympathy for the entrepreneurs' plight, asking them about the problems they are facing in hiring skilled foreign workers. Conrad Burke, president of Innovalight, a solar energy company, quipped he had become an expert in U.S. immigration law over the past two years as he searched for qualified workers.

"It is difficult getting visas, there are caps," Burke said, who emigrated from Ireland to America a decade ago. "Certainly we need some help."

Vivek Ranadive, who came from India to the U.S. for college and graduate school and stayed to start a high-tech company, said his own experience testifies to the importance of welcoming talented immigrants. Innovation is still occurring more frequently in America than in India and other nations, Ranadive argued.

"The innovation that is going on is going on in my back yard," he said "It will go on forever, as long as we continue to accept smart people."

McCain -- who has not talked about immigration as frequently since securing the GOP nomination, in part because audience members are not raising the issue as often as they did during town hall meetings during the GOP primaries -- also took personal responsibility for Congress's failure to enact immigration reform last year.

"The failure of the federal government -- and it was my failure, too -- has had a lot of consequences associated with it," he said today.

By Post Editor  |  May 22, 2008; 4:23 PM ET
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